HOW DOES MARINE DEBRIS IMPACT HUMANS, WILDLIFE AND ECOSYSTEMS? Lessons in this section demonstrate that wildlife can ingest or become entangled in marine debris, and that invasive species riding on debris can change ecosystems.

MARINE DEBRIS Impacts: Materials for Grades 6-8

Lesson 1: You Are What You Eat: Plastics and Marine Life
from PBS Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures

How does an animal's feeding behavior make it vulnerable to marine debris? Students relate the location of plastics in the water column to the feeding behavior of various marine organisms. They discuss how marine debris can cause problems for different animals inhabiting a variety of ocean depths.

Review debris collected on campus or at the beach. Based on what you have learned, which items are most likely to cause harm to sea birds? Marine mammals? Filter feeding organisms? Which items would be most likely to affect organisms that live on the bottom of the ocean?

Lesson 2: Albatross Bolus Dissection
from Winged Ambassadors, Lesson 4

What types of marine debris are most often ingested by seabirds and why? Students use photographs of regurgitated albatross boluses to perform a “virtual dissection” and analysis, comparing the amounts of prey and non-prey items found in several boluses. They then use what they have learned to create a model of a bolus, with which they can educate others.

Reflection / Extension:
What are the most common types of marine debris found in albatross boluses? What is it about those items that lead to the ingestion by sea birds?


Lesson 3: International Pellet Watch
from International Pellet Watch

What is the link between small plastic pellets and marine pollutants? Plastic pellets (also called “nurdles”) are small pre-production pieces that are shipped around the world to factories that melt them to produce a variety of products.  Pellets are often lost during transit, and because they float can be found throughout the ocean and on beaches everywhere. Not only do these pellets contain chemicals that could harm wildlife if ingested, they also attract and accumulate additional toxins from the water bodies in which they float.  Explore the International Pellet Watch website to see data of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) from pellets that have been collected from beaches around the world. Students can collect pellets from a local ocean beach and send them to IPW for analysis and inclusion in the research project.

Reflection / Extensions:
Where are the pellets with the highest levels of toxins found? What factors might account for the high levels of toxins found in pellets from these areas?  Predict what levels of toxins you would expect to see in the pellets you collected. On what information is your hypothesis based?


Lesson 4: Tsunami Debris Species Risk
from Tsunami Debris BioBlitz, Oregon Sea Grant

What impacts can tsunami generated marine debris have on ecosystems? Students use scientific models as a tool to evaluate the many kinds of risk tsunami marine debris poses. They then explore the risk posed by live organisms that have colonized tsunami marine debris.

Does tsunami generated marine debris pose a greater risk of spreading invasive species than regular marine debris? Why or why not?


Lesson 5: Small Plastics, Big Problem
from Mitigating Microplastics, Lesson 2 - Oregon Sea Grant

What happens when microplastics enter the ocean? Students learn about at least two possible impacts of microplastics on the marine environment. They calculate the surface area of rectangular prisms of various sizes and create an argument that the greater surface area of small plastic pieces can potentially accumulate more toxins. Finally, they read about a researcher who encounters microplastics in the guts of the fish she studies.

What happens to total surface area when marine debris is fragmented? Whe does this mean for toxins? What does this mean for microbes that live on the outside of plastic marine debris?


More about this focus area

Marine debris impacts wildlife and ecosystems worldwide. From entanglement of and ingestion by wildlife, to economic costs associated with cleanup and loss of tourism dollars, marine debris doesn’t just affect ocean animals or those who live at the beach, but indirectly affects us all.  These background materials may be used to introduce the topic of marine debris impacts.

  • How does marine debris impact ecosystems?
  • How does marine debris impact wildlife?
  • How does marine debris affect humans?
  • Wildlife can become entangled by marine debris
  • Wildlife can be negatively impacted by ingesting marine debris
  • Marine debris can contribute to the spread of invasive species

LS2.C - Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning and Resilience  - Ecosystem characteristics vary over time.Disruptions to any part of an ecosystem can lead to shifts in all of its populations.The completeness or integrity of an ecosystem’s biodiversity is often used as a measure of its health

ESS3.C - Human Impacts on Earth Systems - Human activities have altered the biosphere, sometimes damaging it, although changes to environments can have different impacts for different living things.